The appointment of the new co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group from the United States could be seen as a positive signal for a peaceful settlement of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The appointment of James Warlick is expected to be helpful in the resolution of the bitter conflict, which has persisted for more than two decades, but experts are divided on its prospects for the challenging peace process.
Associate Director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at George Washington University, Cory Welt, said in an interview to Azerbaijan's news website Day.az that having served as the principal negotiator of the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement, Ambassador Warlick is well-versed in dealing with thorny negotiations on complex political-security issues. "So, he should feel right at home in the Minsk Group," Welt said.
The appointment of James Warlick as the next U.S. Minsk Group co-chair was announced by US Secretary of State John Kerry on August 5. Warlick is due to take up his new position in September.
Warlick most recently served as Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and lead negotiator for the Bilateral Security Agreement with Afghanistan. He served as Ambassador to Bulgaria from 2009-2012, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs from 2006 to 2009 and Director of the Office of European Security and Political Affairs from 2005 to 2006.
Welt noted that it is the right time for a new co-chair to come aboard. The expert also said there has been no obvious pathway to a breakthrough for some time, and it will be helpful to have someone with a fresh eye assessing how to get Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree on the Basic Principles of the conflict settlement or whether it is time to reconsider the existing framework.
He added that the American interests in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict haven't changed much -- the priorities are to prevent an outbreak of war and to justly resolve the conflict.
Also, Director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and a former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan and Turkey Ross Wilson told Day.az that the South Caucasus is a significant priority for US policymakers, whether the issue is Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Caspian gas development and the Southern Gas Corridor or democratic and economic development.
"It will be helpful that the [US] administration's nominee to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, Ambassador Victoria Nuland, was responsible for American policy in the South Caucasus for much of the second Clinton administration, and this will be an asset for the United States in working with regional leaders and others on these and other issues," Wilson said.
He also pointed out that the United States remains a mediator on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a member of the Minsk Group and the importance that Washington attaches to this role is reflected in the recent appointment of Ambassador Warlick by the US Secretary of State.
Wilson said Warlick is a highly experienced diplomat and he will bring important assets to the position of the US Minsk Group co-chair.
"Ambassador Warlick will bring a fresh perspective that may be helpful now. I hope that he will put early consultations on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with his fellow co-chairs and personally with the parties on the top of his to-do list. If and as the parties demonstrate a willingness to close the remaining, small gaps that stand in the way of agreement at least on basic principles, they will find Ambassador Warlick and others all the way up to Secretary Kerry and President Barack Obama to be active and energetic partners," Wilson said.
On the other hand, some experts argue that despite the appointment of the new Minsk Group co-chair, there will not be any improvement in the resolution of the conflict.
Michael Rubin, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told Day.az that "any attention to the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is a good thing but I do not believe there will be any breakthrough."
"Secretary of State John Kerry likes to travel, but there is no indication that he will make Nagorno-Karabakh a priority; rather, U.S. attention will be on Iran, Syria, Russia, China and the Israel-Palestine conflict. There is a limit to what Warlick can accomplish in the Minsk Group under such circumstances," Rubin noted.
He also said that the American interests are greater than many in Washington realize: Karabakh may be an issue of justice to Azerbaijan, but for the United States, it reportedly enables transit for Iranian and Russian weaponry and drugs.
However, the time is on Azerbaijan's side, Rubin said. "Armenia has lost one-third of its population to emigration since its independence and is on a negative demographic trend."
He stressed that Azerbaijan deserves justice sooner rather than later, but will ultimately achieve what it wants.
Meanwhile, Director of the Institute of Political Studies of the Academy of Public Administration under the President of Azerbaijan, political expert Elman Nasirov told the ruling New Azerbaijan Party's website that regardless of who is appointed to the co-chair's position, he pursues the political course of Washington and fulfills the instructions of the State Department.
He therefore expects the new co-chair to continue pursuing the same policy of the United States in the Minsk Group.
"If the United States presents any serious project to achieve resolution of the conflict, Warlick's potential will be revealed in the process of its implementation. So far, we are not witnessing...any drastic change in the US policy towards the settlement of the conflict," Nasirov commented.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict emerged in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan. Since a lengthy war in the early 1990s that displaced over one million Azerbaijanis, Armenian armed forces have occupied over 20 percent of Azerbaijan's internationally recognized territory, including Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent regions.
The United States, along with Russia and France, has long been working to broker a solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the Minsk Group, but their efforts have been largely fruitless so far.
Peace talks are underway on the basis of a peace outline proposed by the Minsk Group co-chairs and dubbed the Madrid Principles, also known as Basic Principles. The document envisions a return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control; determining the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh; a corridor linking Armenia to the region; and the right of all internally displaced persons to return home.